Immigrants and Natives (Of the Digital Variety)

Image: A. Vendramin

Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) recently visited the Surrey School District and I had the chance to both chat with and listen to him. During his session and in a blog he subsequently wrote, he expressed his distain for the terms digital native and digital immigrant. I hadn’t given the terms much consideration until he shared his thoughts. The term digital native, he argued, gives kids today way too much credit when it comes to the use of technology, whereas the term digital immigrant not only sells educators short but also underestimates their role in technology integration in schools. Bill adds that, “…we hang our students out to dry every time that we make blanket assumptions about their ability to grow without us simply because they don’t need owner’s manuals to figure out how to use the new gadgets flooding the marketplace every year.”

In his blog titled Is Embracing Digital Learning a Moral Issue for Educators?, Wesley Fryer (@wfryer) grapples with the issue of the teacher’s role in the use of social media and digital tools in classrooms. He suggested that, “The teachers who teach my own children TODAY who aren’t embracing the uses of digital media in various forms are doing them a disservice, because they are inadequately preparing them for today as well as the world of tomorrow.” He also wondered out loud if the following passage should be excluded from his next eBook:

While there have been and will continue to inevitably be older teachers who will retire from education rather than learn “new ways” of teaching and learning in the digital information landscape, that choice is not a moral one for those of us who choose to remain twenty-first century educators.

Recalling the many times over the past few years I have worked with students on issues involving the use (and more often misuse) of technology and social media, I too have started to question the role adults, both educators and parents, play in guiding students through the rich, but complex world of social media. If the students of today were truly digital natives, they would not only use technology appropriately and in innovate ways, but they would also more consistently demonstrate the same social skills online that they do face to face. The reality is, many kids don’t do either of these!

Even further, I would suggest that as educators, steering clear of, or avoiding social media and digital tools altogether because of the fears or insecurities we may have, essentially amounts to negligence. If a child reported abuse, would we not make the necessary phone call? If a child showed up at school hungry every day and never brought a lunch, would we not find a way to feed them? And if a student were experiencing serious learning challenges, would we not do everything possible to provide them with support?

Despite our personal opinions about whether or not students should be utilizing technology and social media, the truth is THEY ARE. While many of our students make wise choices about their use of social media, inappropriate use can and does lead to difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. I feel strongly that it’s our responsibility as educators to provide them with not only appropriate and authentic ways to integrate social media and technology into learning, but to share the vast knowledge we have regarding responsible and thoughtful decision-making and social interaction.

Truly, there is much we can learn from students and much students can learn from us. Surrey Schools Deputy Superintendent Jordan Tinney (@jordantinney) succinctly tweeted, “Teachers build a bridge between what students know about the tools & what we know about good teaching.” The key certainly is capitalizing on the strengths of all learners – both teachers AND students.

Picture 8As educators and parents, we have the opportunity before us to leverage the power of connectedness via social media. In doing so, we will more effectively engage learners who are becoming increasingly difficult to engage.

What are your thoughts regarding students, education, and the use of social media and digital tools?


  1. Great bit, Antonio —

    What I’d be interested in hearing is how policies crafted at the district/provincial level that are designed to keep kids safe get in the way of really teaching kids the kinds of lessons that you describe here.

    I’m also interested in the tension that you feel as a school principal between your desire to make sure that teachers and students are experimenting in social spaces and your desire to make sure that policies are followed and that kids are kept safe.

    I hear often from principals that the risks that go into giving kids the freedom to explore are too great to be worthwhile simply because ONE mistake of any kind can go public and be disastrous.

    Do you ever feel that way? And if so, how do you move forward towards the kind of learning spaces that you’re describing here anyway?


    • Hey Bill,

      Thanks for the great feedback and thoughtful response. You use a great descriptor “tension” when you talk about where we want our students to go. We are currently looking at social media policy in Surrey Schools. Currently, the policy we are using relates to appropriate use and guidelines around publication of student work, images and names. Much of this policy was established in the late 1990’s and was revised in either 2004 and/or 2008. Much has happened…even since 2008. Could we have foreseen YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, wireless campus? The list goes on. I believe the greatest work needs to go into training educators in the area of innovative and transformative use of technology. I really think most teachers would if they knew how, and if they knew the guidelines around the use of social media and technology. Another huge piece is communicating and demonstrating to parents the transformative power of tech and SM. Right now, it’s just scary for parents. Scary because like you wrote, many adults assume students know how to use the tools appropriate where in reality, they REALLY need us to guide them in this area. Only when students understand appropriate use, will it cease being a scary place to go for teachers and parents.

      Kids are going to mess up – online or face to face. I accept that and view these times as opportunities to teach and learn rather than punish. If we take this approach and give students the skills and attitudes they need, the risk is worth taking. Transparency with parents is also paramount. Parents appreciate knowing what their children are doing online, that this activity will be responsibly supervised, and that problems will be addressed. I think we all agree that giving students laptops, open-wireless and telling them to “go for it” spells disaster.

      Thanks for all y’all gave me to think about during your visit and your great post on digital natives and immigrants. You’ll also be proud to hear – and please let your KIVA Club know – that next week, our grade 7 students are doing their 30-Hour Famine and Kiva is one of the charities they have decided to use the money for. We are looking forward to learning with them. All the best, Bill!


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